Egypt charges top police officers over soccer riot

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

CAIRO — Egypt's top prosecutor charged nine senior police officers Thursday with assisting a murderous mob of soccer fans who killed 74 rival supporters last month after a match in the Mediterranean city of Port Said.

Many Egyptians accuse police of looking the other way while violent crime has spiked in the year since Hosni Mubarak's ouster in an uprising. But the charges in the Port Said riot went a step further, alleging the police actually aided the perpetrators of the world's worst soccer-related disaster in 15 years.

The riot set off days of deadly clashes in Cairo between police and protesters, who accused the Interior Ministry of doing nothing to protect fans. The Interior Ministry oversees the police.

The nine officers, who include six generals and a colonel, are in custody. If convicted, the case would provide the first legal evidence that Egypt's hated and discredited police are collaborating in violent crime, something that the pro-democracy activists behind last year's uprising have long claimed.

The police say their situation has become untenable since Mubarak's ouster, with thousands of criminals who broke out from jails during the anti-Mubarak uprising still at large and armed. They say the nation's economic crisis, high unemployment and an increased flow of firearms from neighboring nations are pushing crime rates even higher.

Additionally, the police complain that many Egyptians have become overly sensitive to police's use of force against violent crime, while longing at the same time for the restoration of security.

But Magda Boutros, a criminal justice expert at a leading Egyptian rights group, said there has been no genuine reform of the police force since Mubarak's authoritarian regime fell.

"There has been a great deal of talk that the police today are different from the police a year or more ago, but there have really been no actual steps in that direction," she said.

The Feb. 1 riot began minutes after the final whistle in a league match between Cairo club al-Ahly and al-Masry of Port Said. The home side won 3-1 but its fans set upon the rival supporters, invading the pitch and running the full length of the field before they reached Al-Ahly fans.

Video clips posted on social networks show dozens of riot police armed with batons and shields standing by as the violence broke out.

The killing frenzy that ensued lasted 30 minutes, with fans getting thrown to their death off the stadium walls, killed by explosives as they tried to flee through a narrow corridor or clubbed to death.

In all, 75 people were charged on Thursday in connection with the carnage — more than 60 of them fans.

Those killed were members of the Ultras Ahlawy, a group of avid club fans. The Ultras have been at sharp odds with the police and have played a key role in the uprising against Mubarak and subsequent clashes with the police and the army. They have routinely chanted songs ridiculing the police for their "stupidity."

The prosecutor general alleged the nine police officers participated in the Port Said killings by way of "assistance" to al-Masry fans. They said the officers, along with several al-Masry officials, knew in advance that the home fans planned to attack al-Ahly supporters, yet they intentionally allowed them to enter the grounds without searching them for weapons as is customary in soccer matches.

The policemen also allegedly allowed al-Masry fans to exceed by about 3,000 the maximum number authorized to attend the game and that many of them were criminals known to the local police.

"Those from the police among the defendants failed to take any measure provided for in the laws and the constitution to maintain public order and safety and protect lives and property," the prosecutor general said in a statement.

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